12. Merton

After an isolated winter in the fastness of the Algerian desert, the Scott household returned to France on the spring of 1924.  Evelyn’s letters give no clue to how they found themselves there but it was clear how difficult she had found it being so far from her dearest friends (Lola in New  York City and Otto in London) and it would have only been a matter of time before they found their way back to Europe or, more precisely, the Mediterranean coast of France.

 

In the spring of 1924 Merton returned to London on his own, for reasons that are not specified but probably had to do with his attempts to have a gallery mount an exhibition of his paintings.

* * * * *

To Owen Merton

[Banyuls-sur-Mer, France]
[May 1924]

Dear Merton

Your note just received.

As the mails seem to be terribly slow, I am telegraphing you another 200 francs today.  I don’t like to send it in this lest you might need it before this arrives.

Evelyn is not writing because she is in bed with the stomach ache peculiar to ladies chaque quatre semaines.

I’m glad you’re finding something to paint and shall look forward eagerly to see the stuff you bring back.  I continue dutifully to cover Archer paper with water colors every day.  I’ll let you decide when you see them whether or not the material is wasted.

My Archer paper came so I’m all right for materials till we leave.  I got a letter from Marie yesterday (don’t tell Evelyn!) quite friendly and nice.

Don’t worry about anything here.  Everybody is well (except Evelyn’s unwell and that will be over by tomorrow).  My neuritis is better.  Jig is fine.  We’ve had rain twice—once all day.

Thanks awfully for the pipe—it’s a nice one and I like it.  Have a good time and do some ripping things and we’ll all be glad to see you when you get back,

Everyone sends love, Cyril

banyuls
Mediterranean coast near Banyuls [Google Earth]

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

[Banyuls-sur-Mer, France]
[May 1924]

Precious Lola, HOW ARE THE STITCHES?

I just wrote Ellen privately that I thought sea voyages hard on new operations, and I’m not pleased to hear before you go that you felt them wobbly.  Thank goodness your letter was stamped Bermuda so you did arrive whole.

Now, angel, to say I was touched at your writing that note in bed in pain doesn’t express it, but you should be spanked.  I wish we were all prize fighters and then we’d lick the world.  But we will anyhow.

I am excited because Merton took the last cash he got and is off today to London on it to try to clinch the interest that has been stirred up there to try to clinch some sales.  He is one of the sweetest people alive and with the worry of poor Suggie’s side should have turned my face to the wall ere now without him.  Suggie is just himself, a marvel and lovely, but he certainly has gone through a hell of a lot of pain lately, and as soon as Merton gets back from London Sug will leave for Paris to see a specialist.  I’m divided between a desire to know the worst and a cowardly horror of the possible seriousness of the diagnosis.  I just try for the present not to consider possibilities.

I can’t write a letter today because I went to the hospital and had that miserable wart thing taken off my typing finger.  I had it last year and didn’t do anything and then putting vitriol on it made it worse so finally had to cut way under my nail and take five stitches on my finger and it makes me lame at typing.  But gee I’m glad to get of it.  Lord, this little operation reminds me most vividly of what you have just been through.  Oh, God damn it, there is too MUCH pain in the world.

Well, honey, so long as you ain’t here I’m glad you are where you are.  It’s prettier here in one way, but golly we want to see you.  This is a very decent little flat, funny and dingy and cheap French formality but has a view of the sea and nice gay painted fishing boats and on the roof a lovely terrace that is quite private with a view of piled up mountain and little villages.

When we left Bou-Saada we came back a new way on the train and for four hours saw gorgeous aloof snow mountains like the Alps and June fields of wheat and olives spread out in tired youngness of afternoon light, really wonderful.  Alger is beautiful land, but in much of it savagely poverty stricken.  Only along the coast the French have made it prosperous.  We all arrived ill and Merton again an angel of kindness.  If everybody was strong it would be a nice world.

I’ll write again when my finger gets more fluent.  Please let us know how you are as soon as you can.  I’m so glad you are seeing that nice place.  We all have occasional homesicks for the mermaid water.

Love and love and love and to Davy please when you write, Evelyn

PS  Banyuls is ten miles from Collioure where we were last year, is a larger town and cleaner but less picturesque.

* * * * *

To Louise Morgan[1]

[Banyuls-sur-Mer]
June 6 [1924]

Dear Louise:

Dr Bennett carried Mutt[2] to London to put him in a sanatorium and have him examined by a nerve specialist.   He’ll probably stay a month.  It is supposed to be a secret that he is there and Dr B has promised to tell no one and let no one come near him, but if you will telephone and ask how he is I’ll be much obliged.  Phone is Langham 1190.  He went off doped.

Dear Louise, you are sweet to have written so nice a letter in such a nasty place and to cheer me up about the awful end of your so-called rest, and I could hug you for what you say of Suggie, who I do think with all my heart is one of the greatest men that ever lived and a very great artist.  [Just as great an artist as a man, emphatically.] [3] I am convinced that it will some day be recognized, because the proof is so indestructible and beyond contention, but I love you for seeing it now when it hasn’t become a fashionable thing to see.  Warm genuine appreciation like yours is a great help, and Sug has had to stand alone in every way more than anybody ought to.

I am so all in I can scarcely write, In ashamed to say that before doctor B had got out of the house I collapsed and behaved like a regular Victorian.  I think I cried for eight hours at a stretch and would have graced the pages of Dickens, though I had the grace to do it in my own room.  Today I have my monthly visitor and am generally so low that a mere boo frightens me.

I wish you could have stayed to see the circus that was perpetrated the night you left and every night since, a wonderful little two by four show right under the window.  They had a caravan in which they carried a pig, five chicks, and a dwarf, and there was a poor tiberculor lady with a baby who did bareback riding in a lachrymose way, a plump and sprightly lady who was a tight rope walker, and a papa who could turn somersalts and juggle barrels on his feet.  The dwarf was the clown.  One joke was to select five small boys from the audience, offer to take their pictures, and pose them thus [series of stick figures drawn here].  First little boy is holding his nose.  Second boy has his head in the air very proud and his fingers in the armholes of his vest and is watching the sky.  Third little boy is pointing disdainfully.  Fourth little boy squats on his hams.  Says boy one, Mon Dieu, what a smell.  Says boy two, It wasn’t I.  Says boy three, there he is.  Boy four says nothing.  How is that for French rural wit to be exhibited at Collioure.

As for our part of the visit, we loved you and having you.  I wish it could have been for a long, long time [you are writing.]

Our love to Otto.  I’m going to write decently when I recuperate. Evelyn

[1]   Wife of Otto Theis
[2]    Evelyn’s pet name for Owen Merton
[3]    Passages in square brackets were later inserted by Evelyn in her spiky hand.

 

banyuls beach
The beach at Banyuls-sur-Mer   [Andre Guarne]

The following letters focus on the relationship between Evelyn and Owen Merton and, in my next chapter, its eventual end.  It is likely that Owen’s precarious health was worsened by the stress of pursuing a physical relationship with Evelyn while Owen, Evelyn and Cyril were living in the same household.  Evelyn’s letters have given very few hints as to the physical arrangements which allowed this relationship to continue, or to why Cyril tolerated it, if indeed he did.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

Banyuls-sur-Mer
June 8 [1924]

Dear Otto:

I have made a mess of my affairs again.  My private opinion is that Merton’s collapse is due as much and more to the artificialities that have hedged in his personal life as it was due to worries about money.  He simply can not be anything but spontaneous and obviously honest.

I am enclosing a letter to him[1] which I want you to deliver simply because you will be able to judge whether or not he is in anything like a condition for serious discussion, which I can not judge at this distance.  I can’t take any of his friends into my confidence.  I want you to read the letter, however boring and annoying the process, for Merton knows that you are the only person with whom I have always been quite frank and it may be a relief to him to talk to you.  I shall write him that, as soon as he is well enough to be about, he will please go to see you to talk over some plans, and you can go somewhere to lunch or tea and have the letter presented.  If you don’t want to do this, Otto, it will be alright.  But I am asking it knowing I impose a difficult thing on you.  Judging by what happened to Merton physically, this is really a matter of life and death.  I think it best he should not have come back here with an emotional élan and have a shock.  It might produce the same result as before.  I think it would be better to get the edge of the shock over while he is among doctors and friends.  If you disagree please tell me.

I can trace a great deal of the depression and overkeying of last winter to incidents relative to myself and him.  I hadn’t considered enough what it was doing to Sug, but now I see the whole thing, in spite of Merton’s protests, is a physiological and psychological impossibility for Merton to.

If you will read the letter you will have something of an idea of how things stand.  I really love Merton very much, but I love Sug more I know or I could not dream of hurting Merton this much.  But I won’t discuss it for I am in an utter inward mess—almost as bad as four years ago—and worse because it’s all happened before with no solution.  Merton is as thoroughly sweet and genuine a person as ever lived and I have three years, nearly, of knowing him to test my opinion by.  He really has been a constant pleasure to me.  Sug, of course, remains the man with the most titanic pride, the greatest moral and mental strength, and the most infinite capacity for tenderness and self-immolation without bunk I ever saw, also the most wonderful theoretic foresight based on sensitive intuitions. But—My defect is that I had too much of an analytic bent to accept the usual self-deceptions, but nothing wherewith to conquer my most ordinary of human nature.  Anyway Merton will get over it.

If you don’t want, when Merton is better, to deliver this letter, or if you prefer to mail it to him, alright, only please be sure he is better.  But if you will let him talk to you I think it might do him good.  He is really very self-respecting and self-responsible—not an artistic monster—and I don’t think he will impose on you very much.  He may regard this quite sensibly or he may want to rush down here, but anyway it will, it seems to me, be good that he has some forewarning of what Sug and I have discussed.

Affectionately, evelyn

Just say no flat if you want to keep entirely out and mail the letter back, but there won’t really be a mess.

PS  An hour later:  perhaps it isn’t fair to you as Sug’s friend to ask you to do this, so will you keep up on Merton s health and mail him the letter when he is much better?  That needn’t envolve you.  I wish you’d read the letter though.  Merton will never be nasty to Sug and he might need a friend very much who was also our friend.

[1]This letter has not survived

* * * * *

There is a gap in the collection between this letter from June 1924 and the next, when Evelyn writes again to Louise in October from Beziers, along the coast from Banyuls. She had visited Paris with Jigg, then 10 years old, while Cyril was setting up an exhibition of his watercolours.

* * * * *

To Louise Morgan

(Chez Madame Leclerc}
23 Place Emile Zola, Beziers, France
[October 1924]

Dear Louise:

This was what happened in Paris (of course).  Jig and I had only been there three days when Jig acquired one of his old bronchial colds.  The dampness of that place is simply poisonous to us.  He was sick for a couple of days, too sick to go anywhere and then I came down with the same germs and an attack of grippe that gave me fever and made me so ghastly if unimportantly ill that I imagined I’d have to go to a hospital or something to get out of the hotel.  As a matter of fact I was only really ill a little longer than Jigeroo, but as we had planned a week in Paris you can see how our time was chiefly occupied. I was so all-in and discouraged I didn’t budge except to go out and get my meals and two expeditions in those first two days when we went to the Louvre and to Les Invalides.  Then as the devil would have it, I hit town the same day as Roger Fry[1] and Sug was seeing a lot of him and not at our hotel either and we only saw Sug for dinner.  Then Merton came up to take me back—you’ll hardly believe me if I go on with this tale of woe, but its all true—(AND THIS IS A SECRET WHICH WOULD RUIN Merton IF KNOWN.  NOBODY HERE OR New York TO KNOW HE WENT TO Paris)—Merton came up after a week with his aunt and uncle seeing the Midi, took leave of them and came on the same route on another train, to go back down south with me because traveling distances makes me ill and I can’t risk them alone.  Well Merton is still in miserable health and aunt and uncle, who travel well when alone, are so afraid he will come at them for money that they travel cheapest when with him.  We was sightseeing on his feet and had to stand on several crowded train trips, did their errands, and missed some of his meals and his heart gave out, so he reached Paris sick too.  He had to lie down most of the time between packing and was really ill when he got on the train with me.  For cheapness in seeing France and with the idea of avoiding fatigue we came via Dijon, spent the night there, were misinformed about trains, and even at the station (which we went to with our lunch only started because the train left an hour earlier than time table said) had a practical joke played on us by some railway employees who told us our train was in and about to leave when it hadn’t even come (was a half hour late) so that as a result my trunk was left behind to be shipped petit vitesse by a hotel employee (it has all the clean clothes in it).  Aboard the train there wasn’t a seat in the second class (the PLM is a hellish rich man’s road, only one second class car in a long train) so we bought first class on the train (if we had bought first class before we left we could have caught a later express and saved half the journey).  All of us had colds and were fagged without lunch.  Arrived at Avignon at eight-thirty that night (trip one thirty to eight thirty) the town had three hundred pilgrims in it and no hotel room, so we all had to go in one room (something discretion disapproves) and the beds were impossible for two, so, Jig and Merton getting to sleep first, I spent the night coughing on a chaise lounge.  Well Avignon was charming to see and we sight-saw the whole day, but left at five that evening expecting to get a dining car dinner.  Diner was taken off and we bought ham sandwiches, after eating them had to wait a half hour at Cette where we might have had dinner anyway, and did try, but I was so tired it made me lose it.  Arrived at Beziers at nine and I was unwell and so sick I could hardly get to the hotel.  Spent the next day in bed and Merton rushing around to try and get some kind of servant to help out in this flat.  Yesterday I revived and here we are.  (It wasn’t time for me to be unwell either, moving did it, so not imprudence.)

You will understand I am in no state to judge of the beauties of Beziers, which Merton picked out because it was the only big town in a hot climate in which he was able to find a flat for three hundred francs a month.  Place Emile Zola is appropriately surrounded by wagon yards, wood yards and alcohol manufacturies.  In the space before our domicile Nick Carter’s youthful associates play bowls all day.  Otherwise the flat is a shrunken edition of Banyuls, very decently furnished in an impossible style, and has running water and a two burner gas stove.  This place is like a mixture of Spain and my own dear southland.  It is a big and rather ugly middle-sized city where bullfighting is the chief interest of the population.  The leading citizens look like retired planters and never seemed to wear clean collars, but there are a great many of them, a place de theatre, innumerable newly decorated movies, and lots of cafes.  Its amusing really, but I haven’t yet seen the wonderful subjects which Merton promises to disclose for painting.

Oh, dear Louise, I will write a nicer letter later.  I am not pippy but feel expressionless from having received too many impressions in quick fire when I was in no condition to register them.

Sug was lovelier an’ ever and I wish you had been able to come over.  Just now Merton has an extra hard row to hoe because of the trouble in getting back enough health to get any work done but it hasn’t hurt his sense of humour or his disposition, and I guess we are all going to be rich and famous yet.  Only damn mortal flesh.

I wish you would feel sometimes later that a trip to France was what you needed.  You’d like to see this funny

More and more love to you and Otto.  evelyn

[1]  British artist and influential critic and member of the Bloomsbury Group.  Evelyn later maintained that he had praised Cyril’s painting.

beziers
Beziers [Alamy stock photo]

To Lola Ridge

Beziers, France
October 15, 1924

Darling Lola:

Gladys must have told you all our news, the wonderful hit Sug’s pictures made in Paris etc.  Several critics used the strongest terms of praise and in a discriminating way, for Parisians are at least mentally sensitive to the new experience if not themselves very richly creative.  And Roger Fry is such a staunch believer in him that it does your heart good in a day when nobody in power ever seems to bet on anything but the safe thing.  Sug wrote that the gallery has been crowded straight along and the show will be extended for a few days.  As we didn’t know any newspaper people we have been quite surprised at all the press attention too.  Merton thinks such a thing never happened at a first show before.

This brings me to the bullfight I went to see.  This beastly town is half Spanish and has Spanish matadors and things.  I saw six bulls killed—there were two more to be—and four horses, and never saw anything so ghastly as the CROWD.  I think the Spanish are drunk of drama and the dramatic element in appreciation is aesthetically non-valid.  I think Spanish art and life goes to pot in drama—even El Greco is tainted—and in the mass it’s a mess.  Picasso’s real aesthetic sense is limited and utterly lost in the grand gesture though that gesture is concealed under the prose nicety of cubism—naturalism of the arts.  The ultra cubists are utter if sincere fakes.

Well, back to Beziers which is like a little Toledo on a high hill, very beautiful from a plain and canals bordered by huge hundred year old cedars formally planted.  But OH what swinish people.  The dregs of French peasant winegrowing commercialism without any picturesque much less aesthetic elements.  Rich wine growers and wholesale grocery men.  Its a nasty place, even after Paris which I found absolutely vacant and formal over a commercialism less romantic and titanically grotesque and even more cruel than New York.  Notre Dame is a banal tradition, but the only beauty in the place is there in a however inferior gothic remnant.  The only art I like is gothic art and Chinese classic and Egyptian.  We were too bust to see theatres and things, but I went a lot to the Louvre which is inhabited by American ladies’ sewing circles and culture clubs, and to the Luxembourg which is the rottenest piffling gallery I ever saw, except for one room with two Cezannes and a few impressionists.  And we saw the modern show in some board barracks uptown, and it was a mess of conflicting formulas—not three pictures that had any relation to immediate seeing.  The French have forgot that the living eye is the basis of the visual experience and are more literary than the Academicians, only Academic literaryness is at least sometimes amusing as anecdote and these things are charts.  Sug and Merton simply rose to the gods after such a sight.  Sug’s things are really beautiful enough to make your cry, Lola, the best, and Merton had evolved from that youngness and fresh virile color into an infinitely greater complexity of organization without losing the powerfulness of a youthful experience.  He will always be of a more lyric bent than Sug, but it is wonderful to note the fine point of divergence—Sug’s toward an exquisite mental balance evolved from hair-trigger emotion and full of emotion, and Merton always clinging to the emotional vision with the mental subtlest intimated but not stated in such exquisite fullness.  Well I’ve had fun out of seeing them.

Merton’s rather ill yet, in fact damn wobbly, but I think a year will see him his old self.  [Remainder of letter missing]

* * * * *

To Louise Morgan

[Beziers, France]
January 28 or 29 [1925]

Dear Louise—

You sure are a brick, honey, to offer to put me up when it means, I can guess, considerable inconvenience NOT to me, as you suggest, but to yourself.  However, I am so grateful for the chance to be seeing you I can’t refuse it.  I could come for a little while anyway couldn’t I, and then if it didn’t seem fair to you to hang on for the whole time I must be there, Merton could help me find another place later?  Dear Louise, take into account however what it will mean to have your bathtub invaded—maybe just at the moment you want to use it—and a typewriter going three or four hours a day in the place you have to eat in.  Please do think well whether you could stand it or not, and be FRANK BEFOREHAND (tho frank after too) if it really, on serious consideration, seems too much for you.  For course I don’t give a damn how small the bedroom is so long as there is something to lie down in—even a bathtub, and that is absolutely true.  I don’t.  And bringing my table I think I will have a perfect place to write, provided I don’t feel it is playing hell with the household, in which case I won’t enjoy doing it.  I would drop writing for the time, but I simply have to get this first draft done in more or less of one stretch or it will be hell to resume it in the same key after months of changed focus.  For a second draft a delay is good.  So I would be writing a lot of the time—so much the better in one way as you needn’t have any fear of a bored idler demanding amusement.  Only will it get on your nerves?

The complications to be settled at this end are the following:  Sug, who is back in the Riviera again, may or may not have to be in Paris at the time Merton goes to London.  If Sug is at that rotten studio it is obviously no place for Jigeroo and I would have to stay over here somewhere with Jig until time to go to America (don’t tell anybody in USA that I am thinking of going there, please.)  If Sug is not going to be in Paris then he can take Jigeroo while I go to London.

In case Sug can’t keep Jig the whole time I might just possibly be able to come over for a short while which would do me lots of good.

NOTE:  If I come to your house for any time really you must be sure and let me know just exactly what one third of your housekeeping is and let me pay it sensibly.  This has already been talked over and agreed on if you remember so don’t do any lady tricks about it.

Now—your hint of spring air, fogs, and doves in old building gives me a thrill of anticipation.  I know I should love it.  I probably won’t be very diverting company and would prefer, if convenient, to be left out of the social activities you and Otto may be engaged in.  This, not from crankiness, but because, though I don’t think I will be an invalid that will need any attention beyond three meals a day, I really am going to arrive in an invalided state.  There is nothing the matter with me but winter and habits of worry, but I simply live so tired I can hardly wiggle, and I have acquired lately a very middle aged ailment in insomnia, for I stay awake about half of every night for some reason or other.  It doesn’t make me cross next day, honest, but it makes me darned disinclined to exert myself, and this feeling is emphasized by purely nervous heart fatigue and short breath that makes me behave when I have to climb a hill as if I weighed two hundred and eighty anyway.

Now is all this an alarming description of anybody you expect to have in your house?  I think a change of scene and an addition to the company will improve all those apparently physiological symptoms at once, but feel it my DUTY spelt thus, to let you know the worst before it happens.

           Lots of love and good luck and so much gratitude that I would sound mushy if I tried to state it.  Love to Otto.  Evelyn

* * * * *

Next week, Owen ends his relationship with Evelyn.  The heartbreaking correspondence vividly records Evelyn’s total devastation at this and the huge demands she made on her friends as she struggled to come to terms with its inevitability.